December 8, 2023

One morning in late July, and the sounds of summer camp were the sounds of summer camps everywhere, as kids ran from activity to activity.

But Midgard Forest Camp is in Kyiv, in wartime Ukraine, and when a warning siren pierced the air, the kids knew what to do, abandoning their jump ropes and tennis matches and rushing for safety.

It’s a routine as familiar as lunch.

The war has brought a new reality to Ukrainians, but some things still hold true, and as the weather warms, some parents are faced with the age-old question: What should we do with the kids this summer?

With children isolated and deprived of social contact — some driven by bitter battles to leave their homes — schools and camps have stepped in to offer programs.

Parents considering sending their children to Forest Camp, which is run by Midgard School, may once have asked about counselor-camper ratios or art programs, but on Feb. 24, when Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine , all that changed.

“My first question at school was if they have a shelter,” Nataliia Ostapchuk recalled as she dropped off her 6-year-old son, Viacheslav Ivatin, on a recent morning.

Yeah, yeah, and when the siren went off the other morning, that’s where the campers headed.

The kids spent about an hour in the underground shelter, and for the most part, they took it easy.

The shelter covers about 5,000 square feet, and given the frequency with which children have to go there—at least once a day—the school has equipped it well. Beyond the tables and chairs, there are games, board games, TV screens. There is also an air supply system, toilets, showers and Wi-Fi.

“I don’t feel like I’m in a shelter,” said Polina Salii, 11, whose family fled the fighting in Pokrovsk, a town in the east.

Back in Pokrovsk, her family was running in a basement that had been turned into a shelter, with canned goods, porridge and liter bottles of water.

“When there was shelling from afar,” recalls Polina, “we spent the whole night there.”

The campers soon seemed to forget their underground surroundings, content to spend time with their electronic devices as reassuring messages were sent to their parents. But when the siren went down, the kids responded happily, running up the stairs to start their day again.

At least, until the next siren goes off.

Midgard School opened in 2017 and as in past years, when summer came, it turned into a camp.

But this year is not like any other year.

This summer, the camp is offering a 50 percent discount for children of members of the Ukrainian military, many of whom are deployed on the front lines in the east. About a third of the campers are from internally displaced families, who attend at no cost. And campers no longer take off-campus day trips. They must stay close to the shelter in case the siren goes off.

Many of the families of the internally displaced campers arrived with little more than they could carry. The school also provided accommodation for three families who fled the fighting in the east. They live in what is usually the kindergarten building.

Five years ago, when her son was born, Maryna Serhienko decided that Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, could use a family development center. So he founded one. He called it the Uniclub and offered community members a preschool, a summer camp, and a gym where mothers could bring their children.

Like Forest Camp, Uniclub reinvented itself after the invasion of Ukraine.

“When the war started, we organized a shelter,” said Ivan Zubkov, Marina’s husband, who helps her run the center. “Families with their children – even pets – lived in the shelter.”

Public kindergartens are not open this summer in much of Ukraine, but Uniclub has 25 children in its kindergarten and 12 in its camp.

It has also provided services for children displaced from Mariupol, the eastern city brutally besieged by Russian forces. Uniclub provides clothing for those who need it, along with discounts and tuition waivers.

Some families have landed in Uniclub to escape the fighting elsewhere in Ukraine — if only as a stopover.

Many have moved on and, with no prospect of a ceasefire, some have left Ukraine altogether. Their pets were another story.

“Now we have a lot of guinea pigs, birds and even a turtle that we take care of,” said Mr. Zubkov.

It may have once seemed like an unfathomable summer activity, but Ukraine itself has become unfathomable, so a program to teach children how to reduce mine risk suddenly doesn’t seem so strange.

The course is organized by Soloma Cats, a charity working with experts from the State Emergency Service and the National Police. Over the course of a week, in five districts of Kyiv, children and their parents are offered safety lessons about mines and unexploded ordnance.

Although Russian forces withdrew from Kyiv after initial attempts to capture the capital failed, the surrounding areas were captured and as the invaders retreated, repositioning themselves for an attack in the east, there were reports of mines and booby traps.

“Today, more than 100,000 square kilometers of territory in Ukraine are contaminated by landmines,” the charity says. “Children and adults alike should all know how to react if they find a dangerous object.”

The war has taken its toll on Ukraine’s children.

Many have been uprooted from communities that have been turned into killing fields. Many have lost family members in the fighting. And many have been killed.

Last week, Ukrainian authorities announced that since the beginning of the Russian invasion, at least 358 children had died and 693 children had been injured.

There are not many children left on the front lines of Ukraine. Most have been moved out of danger, to centers for internally displaced persons or out of the country.

But some parents were reluctant to leave or allow their children to. And so camp or any summer program remains at most a distant dream. The goal is simple survival.

“I know it’s not safe here,” said one mother, Viktoriia Kalashnikova, who stood near her 13-year-old daughter, Dariia, in a yard in Marinka, in the east, as the town came under fire. “But where should I go; Where should I stay? Who will take us? Who will pay;”

Even those who make it through battle can find every day a trial of uncertainty.

In Kyiv, Ihor Lekhov and his wife, Nonna, recounted fleeing Mariupol with their parents and three children. With Mariupol now in Russian hands and their old home partially destroyed, the family has been living in the capital since March.

But they found a welcome in Kyiv — even a summer program for their children. Uniclub took in the two older boys free of charge.

“At the camp, there are sports and team games,” said Maksym Lekhov, 12. “I like walking and playing outside more than anything, but I also like participating in group classes.”

However, there is something he would like even more.

“I want the war to end,” Maksym said. “And I want us to go home.”

Jeffrey Gettleman and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting;

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